The Biden Administration’s nominee for a major part of U.S. public diplomacy received a favorable hearing from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Assistant secretaries for educational and cultural affairs are traditionally primus inter pares in State’s public diplomacy leadership circle. In 2019, the bureau’s budget was $700.9 million. Only the U.S. Agency for Global Media spends more on civilian public diplomacy. And Congressional scrutiny is more intense – especially considering the bureau’s stewardship of the private-sector visa programs.
That’s why bipartisan support at the July 27 hearing for Lee Satterfield, nominated as Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the Department of State, is important. She was introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham, also from South Carolina. Graham listed organizations and people including six former Assistant Secretaries who had endorsed her nomination, and specifically citing the Public Diplomacy Council and Public Diplomacy Association of America.
He reviewed her career, including “launching the Center for Diplomatic Engagement and the Center for Global Leadership,” and concluded: “I can’t think of a more qualified, decent person to have this job, at a critical moment in our nation as we engage the world, and I wholeheartedly support this nomination.”
Satterfield, nominated on April 27, would return to the bureau where she served as Acting Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary during the Obama Administration. She is presently President and Chief Operating Officer at Meridian International Center.
A PDC colleague who took careful notes described the hearing as collegial. Senators’ questions indicated many of the major issues Satterfield will face if/when approved by the full chamber. Our notetaker is the source of the account that follows.
Exchanges important globally and domestically
Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) said: “As authoritarian states such as China and Russia look to systematically curb freedom and democracy throughout the world, it’s imperative that the United States continues to bolster its people-to-people diplomacy. We should look for opportunities to spread the ideals and values of the United States by facilitating various academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchange programs.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D/NH) raised New Hampshire’s problems with the J-1 visa program over the past year, asking Satterfield to make sure “we’re not facing a winter and a spring next year where we’re facing these same problems, where young people are not able to get to the United States because we have embassies closed down and we can’t do the work to ensure that they can arrive in the United States.” Satterfield called the J-1 visa program, now called BridgeUSA, a “valuable foreign policy tool.” She added that BridgeUSA has been strengthened and its participants are now included in programs for USG-sponsored exchanges alumni. Senators Hagerty, Subcommittee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) all chimed in on the J-1 issue as well.
Foreign student numbers declining
Senator Van Hollen asserted that even before the pandemic, there was a big drop in the number of foreign students coming to the United States. He said international student enrollment in U.S. universities declined 6.6% in the first academic year of the previous administration. Satterfield countered that the U.S. remains the number-one destination for foreign students even though numbers have dropped, but added that there is growing competition from other countries for foreign student enrollment. She pointed to promotion efforts like the work of EducationUSA and the more than 600 American Spaces around the world. Senator Van Hollen, chair of the Africa subcommittee, asked that she pay attention to Africa and especially to the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). He said he and other members plan to introduce legislation to codify that program in law.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted that ECA is important to Virginia, a state which has 53 Fulbright scholarship participants this academic year and 114 in the Peace Corps. Virginia also hosts a number of foreign student programs as well, including YALI at University of Virginia and at Virginia Commonwealth University. He went on to ask how Satterfield intends to protect and continue these and other programs in the face of pandemic restrictions. Noting the 75th anniversary of Fulbright this year, Satterfield agreed that the public health concerns are a challenge for exchange programs of all kinds.
Cultural heritage – minorities represented on U.S. committee?
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) asked about import restrictions on cultural goods from foreign countries through MOU agreements with other countries. Those MOU’s, he said, have “the power to impact the cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minority populations which the U.S. should aim to protect. Will you urge the Administration to appoint an advocate for religious and ethnic minorities as a public representative to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to ensure that minority populations are properly represented?” Satterfield committed to working “to ensure a diversity of perspective when continuing the important work as it was laid out originally by Congress.”
Senator Hagerty raised the global competition for influence with authoritarian countries like China and Russia. Complimenting the Department on “the wonderful work done on human exchanges” such as Fulbright and other exchange programs, he said “I’ve seen (they) have enormous impact.” He praised the exchange alumni network and its value to America, asking how Satterfield’s promise of “data-driven measurement and evaluation” could be used measure our success compared to China and Russia? She replied that the Bureau has been working hard to find how to measure accurately the impact of very different programs. She talked of a new measurement and evaluation framework to be “rolled out Bureau-wide at the end of next year.” The Senator said we “should acknowledge what our competition is, and measure our performance according to that competition. So I encourage you to proceed in that fashion.”
Satterfield will not take office until written questions from the Committee are submitted and answered by the State Department and the full Senate votes. Other nominees have been delayed by holds from individual senators. However, the hearing demonstrated solid support for both the candidate and for educational and cultural exchanges.
To read Satterfield’s opening statement at the hearing, go to https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/072721_Satterfield_Testimony.pdf
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service and seven years in the private sector. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More